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Carlos Fenollosa

Carlos Fenollosa

Engineer, developer, entrepreneur

Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

Cloud tools: Google Docs is now good enough

October 26, 2011 — Carlos Fenollosa

We've recently been bombarded with the concept of "the cloud". Every company is using it now as an advertising term, so it's losing a bit of its semantic value. But what does it really mean?

Cloud computing means a lot of things, from distributed computing to distributed storage, ubiquitous documents and collaborative work. Basically, if your data is stored somewhere on the net, you can access it from everywhere and, optionally, work simultaneously with collaborators, then it's "on the cloud".

There are many cloud applications, but today I want to bring some attention to one which is mature enough for everyday use: Google Docs. It's so good that I've been using it for many years now, and there have been only a few occasions where I had to go back to use a local software to create a document. Those have been very specific cases where I needed to produce high-quality leaflets or presentations which need professional software.

Talking about professional, the quality of GDocs is, at least, good enough. At most, it is excellent. The spreadsheets is probably the most basic product, but the documents and presentations are great and they can perfectly be used for any serious work.

However, the highest advantage of using a cloud product is collaboration. There are some "revision" tools for MS Word which are good, but nothing beats collective editing of a document at the same time and rolling back to a previous version like a wiki. Collaborative document edition is definitely Google Docs's strongest point.

Obviously, there are drawbacks. The biggest ones are the inability to access your data when there is no internet or a server error—Google is known for its stability, but it sometimes crashes, believe me— and the lack of features compared to a desktop solution like Libreoffice/Openoffice or MS Office. Quick tip: remember to activate Google Doc's "offline access" to get a local copy of your documents even if the internet goes out.

A controverted point is that of privacy. Some institutions force workers to use local tools because of intellectual property or industrial secret reasons. If that's the case, end of the story, but keep in mind that once a document leaves the local mail servers all privacy is lost, e.g. one of the collaborators has a different email server like gmail or those of another University.

In a scientific environment it is still common to send documents to different people by email, then merging the changes manually and usually losing some of the revisions because of the document mess. That needs to stop. While the final version will probably be edited with a desktop software, there is no reason for a manuscript not to be produced with collaborative, "cloud" tools.

My advice here would be to give Google Docs a try, because it has changed a lot since its inception and it is nowadays an excellent editor, a backup solution, an ubiquitous server and a collaborative platform which will save you a lot of time and hassles.

Tags: productivity

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